a centenary
of Learning

  • 51
  • by Jennifer Blinkhorn
  • graduated 2004
  • studied MEd in Educational Leadership, Policy and Development
  • from Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, West Papua, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UK, Greece

Here, in Afghanistan, I’m incredibly proud that we have been able to bring primary education to thousands of children.

I have been interested in other countries since I was a child. Between the ages of 7 and 12 I lived opposite the sea and used to watch the ships sailing into the distance and just wanted to know where they were going.

I took a first degree in Humanities (majoring in History and Linguistics) at Hatfield Polytechnic (now Hertfordshire University), graduating in 1987. I fell into teaching and education after that and found that I loved it. I taught in Greece for 3 years and then came back to the UK to take my Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults at the Colchester Institute.

This was followed by a few years in the UK of teaching adults and children for whom English was a second (or third) language, and I really enjoyed the work. I became increasingly interested in how a lack of education affects access to opportunities in life – and even how a lack of language in which you can comfortably express your ideas and thoughts affects an audience’s interest in you and how a lack of ‘words’ is often interpreted as lack of ideas.

I realised that I was not interested in the business world of English language teaching and decided to apply for Voluntary Service Overseas. So in 1997, I went to West Papua to work for two years as a teacher / teacher trainer in some junior and secondary high schools. Although it was in some ways hard, I felt I had found my niche. I had skills to offer which could make a significant difference in people’s lives – and I felt stimulated and challenged in ways I hadn’t before. Following these two years, I taught in a women’s university in Saudi Arabia and then in Syria for 3 years.

Throughout this time, I became increasingly certain that this was the line of work I wanted to stay in – but that I wanted to gain a greater intellectual understanding of the link between my work and the development of a country. I also started to look at possible future jobs in order to take my career forward and therefore decided to do a Master’s course. On researching my options, I chose the course at Bristol for several reasons.

Firstly, the university has an excellent reputation and is ranked well for education. This was important to me, as if I was going to take a, possibly risky, gap in my career and spend the money it would cost, I wanted to be sure that the degree would be well regarded. This was even more important for me as my first degree was not from a Russell Group university, so I felt any further qualifications had to come from an excellent university.

My second reason was that I loved the way the MEd in Education and Development was structured; the modules within it and how I felt I would be able to learn while connecting my previous experiences to the academic readings.

When I visited the university, I also liked the fact that the Graduate School of Education was dedicated just to graduate students and I loved the feel of the place. I thought the library and administrative staff I met were incredibly helpful and friendly which meant I felt a lot more relaxed. I particularly remember the warmer months – taking a lunch break in the park after a hard morning of working in the library. The international feel of the university was also something I liked. I don’t particularly like living in cities on the whole, but I felt comfortable with one the size and with the history of Bristol.

I really enjoyed my time studying at Bristol. I loved being in the library, undertaking research and having the time to read. I loved the discussions with fellow students – we were a small group of 12 from all around the world and I think we all benefited greatly from one another. Roger Garrett’s lectures and seminars, in particular, were always interesting, he gave me great confidence and used his experience to link theory and practice. I also took pleasure from the realisation that I had the skills and abilities to work at this level and that I enjoyed writing academic essays. It was a life so different than any other before or after that it seems like a charmed time in my life – and one from which I have derived enormous benefits since.

I couldn’t have even applied for all the jobs I’ve had since doing my Master’s without it. Immediately after leaving Bristol I got a job in Sudan with the British Council, where I stayed for 3 years, before moving to Afghanistan, where I have been for the last 5 years (with a short stint in Pakistan).

Here, in Afghanistan, I’m incredibly proud that we have been able to bring primary education to thousands of children, boys and girls, through a programme of village schools which are based in people’s homes. I am proud that, in the government schools we work in, we have increased girls’ transition rates from lower to senior high school from 48% to over 90% in the last 5 years. I think I’m always moved in Afghanistan whenever I visit a school or community and see the pride and aspirations that education offers the students and communities. Despite numerous criticisms it would be possible to make about the style of teaching, facilities, etc., the children are engaged, learning is taking place – and the eagerness.

When you see how marginalised and vulnerable people are who have had no access to education, and you see the hope and self-esteem that having access to even very basic education offers, it really drives home to me how absolutely essential education is for everyone. When you look at the statistics for Afghanistan and realise how awful they often are (although improving), and then you realise how many of those are linked to educational attainment, it further emphasises this.

The jobs I’ve had have been great – hard work but interesting, personally and professionally challenging, and, I hope, adding to the organisations, societies and communities I’ve had the privilege to work with.

However, not only did the Master’s affect the jobs I was able to apply for and get, it also affected my confidence and my approach to those jobs. I felt much more confident in taking my time to understand contexts and situations before introducing any interventions. I felt able to refuse or accept suggestions from a point of really assessing potential impact and usefulness, rather than just being pushed into busy activity with no clear purpose. I had the knowledge and confidence to adopt a strategic approach to my work.

I have now been working overseas in international education development for 15 years and want to continue in this line of work. I would like to study for a doctorate and I’m currently investigating this. Having spent the last 8 years working in post-conflict countries, I suspect this trend will continue. It’s very much life in the raw and the real impact of education (or the lack of it) are so vivid in these societies that they are difficult to walk away from – even though a tropical beach does sometimes sound attractive.